Shifting goalposts in the field of pay
The dispute seems to be a simple argument about whether the 12.6 per cent three-year deal for university lecturers is acceptable. Since unions claimed more than double this in a bid to bring university lecturers closer to comparable groups who have gained much more in recent years, settlement was never going to be simple.
Such divergent claims have been settled before, but this year is different.
It is the year undergraduates will pay more for their study through top-up fees. It has been expected that some of the increase would go towards improving university lecturers' pay. Then there is the merger of the FE lecturers' union Natfhe with the Association of University Teachers (AUT) to form the University and College Union (UCU).
This is a transitional year before the two unions integrate fully, but they ended as separate entities on June 1. The merger creates a union with about 120,000 academic and academic-related staff. As the unions merge, it is to be expected that they will flex their newly-formed, stronger muscles.
But the new union may find it hard to represent all members adequately.
Natfhe members include junior FE lecturers up to professors in the former polytechnics, and how much these members have in common is questionable. As those in post-1992 universities have had to give more attention to research, the disparity within Natfhe has become more apparent. The inclusion of the AUT, which represents more traditional research universities, suggests that combined representation, support and co-ordination of action may be more difficult.
Yet there are advantages. The enlarged union will be stronger and better able to resist impositions - whether from employers or government. In this case, the arrival of a single union and the current university action both merit strong support.
Employers are now responding harshly to the union action on setting and marking exams. For the first time, management in education (at Northumbria university, and with others considering similar action) is imposing a lock-out and docking pay for all those taking the limited action, but otherwise performing normally.
The responses and implications are serious. The union may demonstrate the advantage of concerted action. Then, surely, the long-overdue merger between unions active in schools must be considered. If anything, the merger of school unions is needed more than in post-compulsory education. A unified voice for schools would merit attention, even from policy-makers who seem to pay little heed to teacher opinion.
Yet there is a risk that collective bargaining will end. There are already signs of this. The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA) has said the existing offer may be removed. More crucially, it seems that UCEA will advise universities to break with national pay bargaining and make local deals. More than a dozen universities plan to make local deals with their staff.
If local negotiations were imposed, the impact on FE would be considerable.
Regional costs of living might be part of any offers. This could apply to universities, too. But FE could also see bargaining based on sector pay rates. This could be serious for those who earn more working in FE than is typical in their areas - in health, beauty and hairdressing, for example.
Such groups would be more vulnerable than those in accounting, law, and now plumbing or construction - because professional groups traditionally earn well above FE rates, and this is increasingly true of skilled trades.
The idea of an enhanced market for FE pay meshes with the increasing influence of the market in FE. But while some may gain, this is not in the interests of FE as a whole. It would do little to promote teamwork and threatens to differentiate - and thus fragment - college structures. This background shapes the current negotiations and will affect future direction. It is no surprise that both sides are prepared to play hardball.
Graham Fowler is a writer, researcher and consultant in further education